A dark night in Denver

Every single Raptor should be ashamed of themselves after this one.
Raptors 93, Nuggets 132

You have to start with effort, if the effort’s not there, nothing else matters. Nobody was expecting the Raptors to win this game or even win a game on this roadtrip, all we wanted to see was some improvement and effort. It doesn’t matter if you have talent, athleticism, ability or size, if the underlying effort is missing you will lose and not only that, you will get humiliated and embarrassed. That’s what happened tonight, we got humiliated and embarrassed by a team that came out playing enthusiastic and aggressive basketball. On the other hand we were timid and passive in our approach to offense and defense. We’re used to the passivity of the Raptors and have even subconsciously come to accept it, but when a team challenges you like Denver did tonight, there needs to be a response, a call to arms that serves as a reminder to the players that their intensity and defense needs to respond to avoid possible humiliation. When the players glance up at the scoreboard and see the lead go from 5 to 10 to 15 and then to 20 while their attitude towards the game stays the same, there’s a problem. We didn’t change the way we played when we were down 5 or when we were down 20. It was almost like we were insulated from the fact that we were being laughed at by everyone in the arena and those watching on TV. We weren’t bothered to raise our effort level, if not our games, to match the other team so that we could have an outside shot of making this a competitive affair and saving some face in the process.

After a game like that you don’t want to put your Raptors shirt on and walk on the street. It was that bad and Jermaine O’Neal’s the first one to point it out:

We should be ashamed of ourselves. It was embarrassing for the people that support the Toronto Raptors organization, the city and the country. It’s not about the coach or the front office, its the players. We have to figure out our effort.

I think Sam Mitchell’s a very pedestrian coach that will never lead us anywhere significant and I was disappointed that he got renewed after winning the Coach of the Year award. If you sense a but coming, you’re right. He may be a terrible coach with two plays in his book BUT that doesn’t mean what happened tonight is on him. He is no doubt responsible for the team’s struggles in technical areas of the game (more on that later) and his strategies have often backfired BUT when a player refuses to compete or play hard, it is not the coach’s fault. A coach should not tell you that you need to play hard, in fact it’s embarrassing for both parties when somebody has to tell someone that. There needs to be a desire and a will to compete and that is missing from the Raptors. There should be a fire that is constantly burning in a player which drives him to excel and take pride in what they do, it should force them to give it their best every second they’re on the floor and if that’s not good enough, be upset about it to the point of aggression. It’s sad but the only Raptor that I can safely say always puts out an honest effort is……..Kris Humphries.

On the other hand if there’s one thing I expect Sam Mitchell to instill in this team, its hard work and dedication and the simple undebatable fact that he hasn’t been able to do that makes you wonder just what he’s good for. Mitchell was at a loss for words after this one, he literally couldn’t finish his sentences and was in a daze, the sound of Chauncey Billups’ threes swishing the nets were still ringing in his ears:

I’m extremely disappointed in the way we came out tonight. Words can’t describe how I feel about it. At the end of the day the coach is a coach, the players got to play. You got to compete every second you are on the court. You almost want to fight each other after a game like this. You got to be demanding of each other. No coach told me how hard to play, you have to compete every second you’re on the floor. We just got to go out and compete whether you play 35 minutes or 1 minute.

He should let the fans and media decide whether to deflect the blame off of him and assign it to the players, him pointing it out for us is a sign that he’s watching his back.

We’ll get to the technical areas in a bit but I want to say a final word about effort and the desire to compete. We don’t have it. We might show it in bits and pieces here and pump our fists after a spectacular play or make the three sign when we hit a deep bomb but that’s flash-in-the-pan stuff. It’s easy to get pumped up when you’re playing well, the challenge lies in finding that energy, motivation and emotion when you’re down 15 on the road early in the game. How one responds to adversity tells you a lot about a person and judging by our play and body language tonight, it was clear that we’re not psychologically ready to compete night in and night out. When your outside shots are falling, will you adjust and become aggressive and challenge the defense or will you continue to be passive and not bother about making that extra effort that’s needed to get you off your schnide, that’s the difference between a good team and a team that thinks they’re good.

The signs of this catastrophe were there from the beginning, 13 of our first 14 shots were jumpers and even though we built a modest 6-0 lead early on, things didn’t feel right. We weren’t even faking to drive the ball and automatically settled for the first option in our simplistic offensive sets which are no more than trashy pick ‘n rolls followed by a slutty jumpers that end up looking very much like vulgar one-on-one moves. The basketball travesty that are our offensive sets don’t deserve to be called plays because plays usually have options, not hurdles which you have to overcome. Like, I get it, we run the high pick ‘n roll and I’m fine with that but I can’t even recall the last time it resulted in anything but a pass back to the screener who ended up gaining nothing in this useless dance. What is the point of this? The pick ‘n roll is supposed to be at least a dual threat, Threat #1: the guy with the ball drives to the rim sucking in your defense or Threat #2: The screener is freed because both defensive players involved are focused on the ball handler. None of those two things are happening this season and the entire process has become a waste of valuable shot-clock time.

Let me tell you how perversely allergic Jose Calderon is to driving the ball. This is a true story. In the second quarter through some weird switch which the Raptors didn’t even initiate, Chris “Birdman” Anderson ended up guarding Jose Calderon at the top of the three point line. So I’m thinking mismatch. C’mon, it’s a starting PG versus a scrub, what’s the logical thing that should happen here? Calderon should blow by the Bird who will desperately try to block the shot to no avail and either Calderon will get a layup or pass it off for a layup. What actually happened? Calderon harmlessly passed the ball to his left. Stop! Don’t give me the hammy excuse because its false. If Calderon had a hamstring issue there is no way he should’ve been playing late in the third quarter with the Raptors down by 35. If he actually does have a hamstring problem and Mitchell still keeps him in the game at that stage, than that should warrant a firing. Same applies for Bosh, no reason he should be there that late with the score what it was.

I could literally write a small book about the things we did wrong but I’ll just pick a couple more. Whatever happened to the idea of bumping your man so he doesn’t cut to the rim whenever he wants to? I understands guards have a tougher time getting away with this but I fully expect Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal to keep track of their covers and make sure they stay between them and the basket. Isn’t that the first thing they teach you in middle-school? I lost count of how many times Nene went unmolested when strolling through the lane for dunks or how many times KMart came across the lane without even as much as a touch from his defender until he reached the rim. Forget about dribble-penetration – we know that’s a major problem – tonight we saw interior defense that would’ve made Zan Tabak shake his head.

I understand that this was Jermaine O’Neal’s first game back and that he might be a little rusty but allowing Nene to drift off towards the rim for an open dunk while you’re ball-watching a PG 23 feet away was the height of losing ones concentration. But hey, maybe it was the altitude as Leo Rautins and Matt Devlin kept pointing out over and over again during and especially after the game. What a lame ass excuse? Why even bring that up? I don’t care if the Nuggets play at the peak of Mount Everest, there’s no excuse for Jose Calderon to be more than 2 feet away from Billups after he’s nailed his first 3 threes. If Jose can’t check his drive and contest his jumper properly, he’s what they call a liability and being a defensive liability at the point-of-attack when your counterpart is the second-best player on the team is a death sentence.

Chris Bosh with 24 points, 12 rebounds, 7-12 FG and 10-10 FTs. Box. It’s hard to complain about his offensive game with those numbers staring at you in the boxscore so I won’t go there but let me have my peace. I don’t care if he can shoot, his ratio of jumpers to drives should not be 3:1 as it is on this roadtrip. In my opinion, if he gets his points through layups and dunks it sets a tone for his teammates who are likely to follow his lead and be aggressive. If Bosh starts settling for jumpers, suddenly Jamario Moon, Jose Calderon and Anthony Parker subconsciously think it’s acceptable to emulate their leader and do the same. I understand that his production is good but the indirect impact his outside shots are having on the rest of the team’s play is questionable. I’ll keep an eye on this stat more from now on but consider this from tonight: 11 of Parker’s 12 shots (2-11 FG eww), all 5 of Jose’s shots, all 8 of Bargnani’s shots and all 4 of Moon’s shots were jumpers.

Dahntay Jones heard the name of the play Jose Calderon relayed to the team and immediately yelled it out for everyone to hear. That right there speaks of scouting, preparation and readiness. They were ready for us from the opening tip and knew what the matchups to exploit were, Calderon was at Billups’ mercy, ‘Melo had Bargnani clutching at air and their big men had a plan to get into their offensive sets early and catch the Raptors napping in semi-transition. They knew that our perimeter defense was weak and tested it by forcing us to close-out on their shooters (which we didn’t do) who were taking quick threes and making us guard dribble-penetration (which we haven’t done all year) so its natural that they met with success. I can’t even remember the last time the Raptors exploited a matchup other than through one-on-one moves by Chris Bosh.

Sam Mitchell in his presser said that they had a great intense practice and was shocked to see the kind of performance we got. It’s very hard to have good practices when the players in your practice aren’t good enough to simulate real game-time experiences. If Jose Calderon is checking Roko Ukic and manages to stop him in practice, it hardly means that Calderon’s doing a good job. It just means he’s doing a good enough job to stop Roko Ukic. Does that count for anything? Same is true for Anthony Parker and Jason Kapono. Or Kris Humphries and Jermaine O’Neal. Or Andrea Bargnani and Jamario Moon. The lack of depth hurting the team during the game is something everyone talks about but the impact of having a thin roster that doesn’t facilitate good practices is almost fatal. It’s not a surprise that great teams that go deep into the playoffs have solid players 1 through 12 even though the rotation might be 7 players deep. It’s a problem that’s hard to solve because let’s face it, we just don’t have the talent.

We knew this though, in the summer all the talk was about the “concentrated talent” in the roster and how a shorter rotation was going to make up for everything else. The talk coming out of the Raptors camp was to play intelligent basketball which used our limited but talented resources usefully. It was about how this team was built for the playoffs. As things are starting to take shape it looks more and more like the talent is far more diluted than originally thought and that the intelligence and motivational levels were vastly exaggerated.

It’s 2:30 AM and I can honestly say I worked harder than any Raptor tonight.

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